As tensions escalate in the South China Sea, doubts begin to pour in on whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is well-equipped to deal with the matter. In particular, the situation has hit a new high when the Cambodia Foreign Minister Hor Namhong repeatedly disrupted proceedings while ASEAN leaders were formulating a communique on the South China Sea dispute during the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh last week.
A frustrated diplomat told the Straits Times, “Each time the South China issue as raised, Hor Namhong would, like a Chinese cyborg, say that ‘ASEAN cannot be used as a tribual for bilaeral disputes’.” As a result, ASEAN was unable to issue a communique on the South China Sea dispute.
This unprecedented diplomatic failure reveals how inadequate the ASEAN’s approach of consensus-building, also known as the ASEAN Way, is for handling the South China Sea dispute. All it takes is just one impoverished member state to throw a spanner to stall the ASEAN machinery. There is no voting mechanism to reach a decision should ASEAN fail to arrive at a consensus on a substantial matter.
However, such design was intended to accommodate ASEAN’s political diversity. Member states have wanted neither to engage in collective defense nor to forge common foreign policy. Their respective perceptions of real and potential enemies and friends diverge too. The member states also differ in the extent and nature of their reliance on outside powers for national security assurance and protection.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of diplomatic caution has been put in place to present ASEAN as a security community and not a military alliance. During the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in 2006, the defense ministers said that their meetings would have four goals:
- to promote regional peace and stability through dialogue and cooperation;
- to offer guidance to already existing dialogues and cooperation involving senior defense officials and military officers;
- to promote mutual trust and confidence through improved understanding of challenges to defense and security; and
- to help establish an ASEAN Security Community as already stipulated in the Bali Concord II and the Vientiane Action Programme.
ASEAN’s lack of credible threat is perhaps best demonstrated by its inability to organise a peacekeeping force in response to last year’s Thai-Cambodia Border Conflict. Certainly, as long as ASEAN is not a military alliance, it may not muster any threat to Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
More importantly, ASEAN has demonstrated little capability to handle regional security challenges, thus giving any major powers no incentive to engage ASEAN for the handling of these challenges, instead of addressing them unilaterally or bilaterally.
Given the South China Sea is in its home turf, the failure of ASEAN to contain the South China Sea dispute or maintain itself as the main platform for managing the conflict would ultimately erode its regional relevance. The stakes are pretty high for ASEAN as an international organisation.
Photo courtesy of Gregory A. Harden II / US Navy